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Dustin Putman

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Raising Helen (2004)
1 Stars

Directed by Garry Marshall
Cast: Kate Hudson, Joan Cusack, John Corbett, Hayden Panettiere, Spencer Breslin, Abigail Breslin, Helen Mirren, Sakina Jaffrey, Hector Elizondo, Felicity Huffman, Michael Esparza, Larry Miller, Rowan Joseph, Joseph Mazzello, Alec Nemser, Jason Olive, Kathleen Marshall, Paris Hilton, Alan Thicke
2004 – 115 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 29, 2004.

Veteran director Garry Marshall is an unmistakably uneven filmmaker who has made great motion pictures (1988's "Beaches"), some very good ones (1999's "The Other Sister"), some merely enjoyable pieces of fluffs (1990's "Pretty Woman" and 2001's "The Princess Diaries"), some mediocre ones (1999's "Runaway Bride"), and some notoriously bad ones (1994's "Exit to Eden," anyone?). Among everything, it cannot be denied that he knows how to make films that are easily marketable to a wide mainstream audience. How else to describe making an unctuously conventional movie about S&M and another about a hooker? When Garry Marshall succeeds, he hits the nail on the head of his audience's sensibilities. When he fails, he misses things by a mile.

Such is the woeful case of "Raising Helen," an acrimoniously cookie-cutter affair without an honest bone in its body. The film practically screams at every turn to be loved. Its every overly cutesy comedic moment yearns to bring the house down with viewers exploding in laughter at how wild and wacky and downright adorable the characters are. Its every saccharine, melodramatic moment wants viewers to pull out their handkerchiefs on command, as they lament about how touching it is that one of the lovable characters are going through some sad times. Undiscriminating audience members may fall for it, although such a possibilities is hard to belief. For being so falsely sentimental, so out of touch with reality, and so, well, bland, "Raising Helen" had my gag reflexes working overtime.

Helen Harris (Kate Hudson) is a young, career-driven party girl climbing to the top of Manhattan's illustrious world of fashion. When her oldest sister (Feliicity Huffman) and brother-in-law are suddenly killed in an automobile accident, Helen is shocked to discover a will that leaves her over her super-mom other sister, Jenny (Joan Cusack), with guardianship of nieces Audrey (Hayden Panettiere) and Sarah (Abigail Breslin) and nephew Henry (Spencer Breslin). Helen, a young woman who hasn't completely grown up herself, doesn't know the first thing about raising kids, but she accepts out of duty. Moving from her cozy bachelor pad in Manhattan to a run-down apartment in Queens, Helen quickly finds her whole life in turmoil. She is fired from her fashion job and becomes a receptionist for a used car dealership. Teenager Audrey acts out by hanging with a bad crowd at school. Henry no longer wants to play sports because it was something he and his father used to do together. Little Sarah is having a difficult time adjusting to life without her mom, who was teaching her how to tie her shoes right before her death. Jenny resents Helen for being chosen over her to take care of the children. And Helen attracts the eye of Dan (John Corbett), a Lutheran pastor who is also the principal at the kids' school.

Like a sitcom that won't seem to end, all of the conflicts in "Raising Helen" are tidily solved and and neatly wrapped up with a darling little bow by the 115-minute mark. The problem is, none of it is done well. The screenplay by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler has seemingly developed all of the characters from a paint-by-number kit, as each and every one of them do not plausibly have any sort of interests or quirks outside of what is demanded by the script. Helen's journey to becoming a parent and falling in love with her nieces and nephew—the core premise—lacks the depth and details required to get a sense of her burgeoning relationship with them. With only a couple scenes dedicated to her interaction with Audrey (most of which are screaming matches) and Sarah, and only one major scene between she and Henry, the three charges fail to become people we care about or even really know. They simply remain enigmas, necessary pawns to the plot, and director Garry Marshall shows no interest in them when he could, instead, be setting up another weepy moment or jokey one-liner. He never met a dead-end subplot he didn't like (hence the two-hour running times of almost all of his films), and when all else fails, Marshall opts for a drawn-out montage that goes nowhere.

Kate Hudson (2003's "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days") needs to start choosing her projects more wisely if she wishes to have the same career durability as mother Goldie Hawn. Hudson is an exuberant presence, but she hasn't had a role worthy of her talents since 2000's "Almost Famous." As Helen, Hudson does what she can with a threadbare title character driven down by director Marshall's commercial-hungry hand. John Corbett (2001's "Serendipity") ably plays the thankless part of Helen's love interest, Pastor Dan, but their romance has about the same level of charisma as a pile of wet twigs in a fireplace. Even Helen Mirren (2001's "Gosford Park") is wasted as Helen's boss, Dominique. It should also be noted that, whether it be a case of a poor director, little rehearsal time and preparation, or lacking performances, there are many parts where the actors seem at a loss for words, as if they are attempting to remember their next line. It's embarrassing to have to watch.

The only performer to escape with most of her dignity intact is Joan Cusack (2003's "School of Rock"), who can brighten up any scene in any film in which she appears. As Helen's big sister, Jenny, a somewhat insecure housewife with a knitting fascination, Cusack portrays the only character who feels like a real person rather than a written creation. Cusack gets the few laughs that actually work, and the only moments that are genuinely affecting; she is one of today's most reliable and versatile actors.

With "Raising Helen," director Garry Marshall has concocted one of his very worst films, to date, a motion picture that tries so hard to win viewers over with its cuteness that it comes off feeling like it hasn't tried at all. The film lacks spontaneity, the camerawork is haphazard (one dramatic moment flounders terribly because the camera pulls back from the character rather than peer in closer), and Helen's metamorphosis into a responsible, happy adult cannot be bought for a second by what is found on the screen. "Raising Helen" is cloying beyond belief, even when it clearly means well. It would be advisable to hand out barf bags in theaters showing this junky piece of false sentiment.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman